Interview: Anson ‘Potsie’ Williams on His Book ‘Singing to a Bulldog’

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CHICAGO – When is comes to appreciating life, one great practitioner is Anson Williams, better known as the character “Potsie” from the 1970s TV series “Happy Days.” Williams wants to remind everybody to “pay it forward,” as he does in highlighting his unlikely mentor in his new book, “Singing to a Bulldog.”

The focus for Anson Williams is on Willie Turner, a custodian he worked with in a department store. Willie gave the 15-year-old Williams life lessons, as he was navigating the road to being an actor. Even though Turner was illiterate and a drinker, he stuck with and guided Williams, which provided the impetus for the young actor and singer to find his path.

Anson Williams
Anson Williams at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, November 16th, 2104
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com

And that path led to TV stardom in the sitcom “Happy Days,” which premiered in 1974. The set-in-the-1950s series defined popular culture during the era, as Henry Winkler broke out as the character Fonzie, with Ron Howard, Williams and Donny Most co-starring as teenagers growing up in Milwaukee during a more innocent time. “Happy Days” lasted an unprecedented 11 seasons, ending in 1984, and Williams stayed with the show through the run. He also showed off his singing chops on the series, which led to recording and touring at the same time.

After “Happy Days,” Williams pursued a similar path as Ron Howard, and became a director, mostly in television. He has helmed many well-known 1980s and ‘90s TV shows, including “L.A. Law,” “Diagnosis Murder,” “Xena: Warrior Princess.” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Melrose Place,” “7th Heaven,” “Baywatch,” “Beverly Hills 90210,’ and “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.” He most recently directed 31 episodes of the ABC Family series “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” which featured break-out star Shailene Woodley.

Anson Williams was interviewed by HollywoodChicago.com via phone from California, and posed for some Exclusive Portraits with photographer Joe Arce at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Ill. He spoke of appreciation for his lucky life and his book “Singing to a Bulldog” – the title that originated from “Happy Days” producer Garry Marshall (story below).

HollywoodChicago.com: Obviously the life lessons of your friend Willie resonated with you your entire life. When did it occur to you that thematically that would be the basis for your memoir?

Anson Williams: I’d never written a book, but someone I knew at Readers Digest suggested that I write some short stories about my Forrest Gump-like experiences – in the sense of ‘what am I doing here?’ I thought that would be fun, and as I was outlining those adventures, the first sentence came to me. ‘There would be no story without Willie Turner.’

I was 15 years old, with a difficult upbringing, and was not a confident kid. I was working part-time as a assistant janitor at Leonard’s Department Store in Burbank, California. And my boss was Willie Turner, an African American man in his fifties, illiterate and a functional alcoholic. Without that man, in my life at that time, there would be no story. When we weren’t working, we were talking, and he helped me find me.

HollywoodChicago.com: How did that lead to the book?

Williams: I wrote the outline and sent it back to Reader’s Digest, and they called me back and told me it was a book. That’s how it all happened. And all the stories in the book – from working with Bette Davis, to meeting Elvis Presley and John Lennon – have a bigger story, that pays Willie’s lessons forward. I feel it’s more than a memoir, it is motivational. And if I can create a connection with the reader, and help them, then I can move Willie forward.

HollywoodChicago.com: So what is the origin of the title, ‘Singing to a Bulldog’?

Williams: I see the title as the polar opposite of the term ‘jumping the shark’ [the point where a TV show success starts to decline], which of course ‘Happy Days’ helped to inspire. ‘Singing to a Bulldog’ is the precise moment when you start to climb. What’s your ‘Bulldog’ moment?

It had to do with an entrepreneurial opportunity. It was the first year of ‘Happy Days’ and we weren’t being paid anywhere near the type of money of a top TV show. So I was looking for another angle. It occurred to me that David Cassidy of ‘The Partridge Family’ and ‘The Brady Bunch’ had record deals and tours because they sang on the show. I had sung in nightclubs, and if I could sing on the show, I could get some outside income and maybe a record deal and touring gig.

HollywoodChicago.com: How did you convince the producers to do it?

Williams: I went straight to series creator Garry Marshall, and he gave me one minute to change my life. It was an ‘elevator pitch.’ I told him you have girls on the show, cars on the show, but he didn’t have music. I told him Richie could play, Ralph Malph could play. He looked at me and said, ‘that’s a good idea, we’re going to do it.’

He came back later and told me, ‘good news, you will sing on the next show, but you’re singing to a bulldog.’ And I asked ‘why’? He just said, ‘since I don’t know what you sound like, if you’re good, it get laughs. If you’re bad, it’s gets laughs.’ I sang ‘All Shook Up’ to a bulldog. But that moment changed my life. It was my ‘Singing to a Bulldog’ moment, when my career started to climb.

HollywoodChicago.com: What influenced your journey as a performer in the crucial years from the time The Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan Show to doing the pilot episode for ‘Happy Days’ on ‘Love, American Style’?

Singing to a Bulldog
‘Singing to a Bulldog’ by Anson Williams
Photo credit: Reader’s Digest

Williams: When I first heard The Beatles, I was 12 years old, and I was listening to them with my buddy Howie, which is who I based the Potsie character on. The whole Ed Sullivan thing, and then the explosion of songs, was mesmerizing. That became a big part of my culture. The second part was using Willie’s lessons in pursuing my show business career. He taught me all the instincts, and the book points out how I used those instincts to get an agent, and how I got the audition.

HollywoodChicago.com: In the intro to your book, you spoke of your father’s resentment towards you in regards to the dreams he had to give up. How did you reconcile those frustrations later in your life, and what do you understand about the old man more than ever right now?

Williams: We did make up years later, and we did bond. When I was younger, he had issues with his own upbringing, and had lingering effects from his service in World War II. He spent his 21st birthday in a trench getting shot at – the man saw hell. His transition into the real life after the army was really difficult for him, and I came along when he was in his mid-twenties. I don’t blame him for being frustrated. It came out of his own desperate needs.

HollywoodChicago.com: You sang a variety of songs of the series, but you first started with the 1950s classics in which the show’s era was set. What is it about that particular era that you connect to, and what vocalization techniques in singing those hits made you a different singer?

Williams: I think I was more of a performer than a singer, less a recording artist and more a live singer. The 1950s songs, honestly, just made me feel good. I’d hear that music, I’d sing that music, and I just felt better. Everything that was down, went up – it was the feeling, I didn’t analyze it, and there was something that connected to the audience in a positive way.

NEXT PAGE: Anson Williams talks ‘Happy Days,’ the term ‘jumping the shark,’ a close encounter with John Lennon, directing, and the Vietnam War.

Roger Darnell's picture

Great story...

I’m so happy to read this Q&A here! Well done Patrick, and thank you for helping us all get to know Anson even better.

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